In August of 1971, Nicholas Ray moved to Binghamton, New York, to take a two-year post with Binghamton University’s Harpur College as a visiting professor in their film department. “You can only learn film-making by making films,” was Ray’s mantra, and he put it into practice. He drafted all three classes to become his crew, cast and collaborators: forty-five students rotating through the various production roles (camera operator, sound recorder, editor, electrician, script supervisor, etc…) to learn hands-on filmmaking with Ray as mentor, ringmaster and director. We Can’t Go Home Again, first screened in unfinished form at the 1973 Cannes Film Festival and famously unfinished until Susan Ray, the director’s widow, completed/restored/reconstructed the film in 2011, made its official re-premiere at the 2011 Venice Film Festival, almost forty years later. (The restoration was in collaboration with EYE Institute Netherlands and The Academy Film Archive and with the support of numerous film foundations and archives).
Begun under the working title “A Gun Under My Pillow” (a reference to Sal Mineo’s character in Rebel Without a Cause, 1955), the film was embarked upon with the spirit of collaboration and experimentation. Ray had not completed a film since 55 Days at Peking in 1963, itself a frustrating experience for the director thanks to interference from the producer. He spent the next decade trying to get new projects off the ground, with a break hanging out with Dennis Hopper on his radical The Last Movie (1971). He even started shooting a film about the trial of the Chicago Eight with the defendants playing themselves, grabbing footage of events outside the courtroom along the way. Some of that footage, along with other documentary slices of America’s volatile political culture, found its way into this new production. The rest was concocted and created by Ray and the students.
Ray himself narrates and stars as a version of himself: the director of Rebel Without a Cause and They Live By Night (1949) who comes to the liberal arts college to teach filmmaking and gets to know his students (overcoming their initial sense of distrust) as they embark on a film inspired by their own ideas and experiences. While making 55 Days at Peking, Ray had a premonition that he would never finish another film. That premonition, as well as premonitions of his death, frames his story. While grappling with the idea of being a teacher and an authority figure (“Don’t expect too much,” he tells one student, a resigned, ambivalent bit of philosophy where we expected the punchline to a joke), his students’ lives and relationships guide their stories. A former seminary student named Tom Farrell became a central character whose initial antagonism turns to camaraderie. Leslie Levinson, a dancer brought into the film by a friend, became another defining character in We Can’t Go Home Again, and her startling stories and daring revelations (all inspired by actual events in her life) push the film’s content as much as Ray’s relentless experimenting pushed the form. The film reflects and confronts the political volatility of the era, looks at sexual freedom and guarded relationships and takes an ambivalent stance toward authority figures.
We Can’t Go Home Again debuts on TCM on Tuesday, October 25 and repeats Wednesday, October 26.